Sunday, January 25, 2015

Book #4: Change Anything

I finally sat down this week and read Change Anything from cover to cover. I've been dipping into it off and on for months as I've been adapting the material from a course based on the book to teach at the jail.

The premise is fairly simple and constructive: having the will to make better choices in our lives is essential, but if we're not aware of things that influence our choices--such as a lack of skill or information, social pressure, perverse structural rewards, environment, etc.--and wrangle as many of them as we can to work in our favor, we may well be set up to fail. Click here to watch a short video that explains more.

"They just need to make better choices!" I hear that a lot. And not just about inmates.

This kind of sentiment often comes from people with a privileged perspective--people who, yes, had the will to make good choices and did, but who are often unaware of everything that worked in their favor and even more unaware of things working against the people they are criticizing.

Today, in fact, I saw again the old meme with the picture of the pointing finger of shame that reads, "Don't blame your behavior on someone else. You are 100% responsible no matter how bad you are feeling or what's happening in your life."

Yes, it is true, what the old meme says. Unless we lack some essential brain capacity, we are ultimately 100% responsible for the choices we make. Try as they might, no one can force us to behave in a certain way. At some point it requires us to choose whether to cooperate.

But, I want to shout, that is only part of the story. 

Not one of us makes our choices with perfect knowledge or ability. Not one of us makes our choices in a vacuum, independent of our environment. Sometimes we can't even see there is a better choice to make. If we fail to understand this we will continue to shame people, including, by the way, our own selves. And shame can be truly counterproductive.

What if, instead of pointing fingers of shame, we all opened up our eyes and saw the whole story? Imagine the power in that. Maybe we actually could change anything.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book #3: The Rosie Project

I read this novel because it is our February selection for book club. I read it a month early because I had the fortunate chance to hear the author, Graeme Simsion, speak at The King's English in Salt Lake City last night. It was a brilliant choice. Entertaining book. Fascinating author.

I'd read about a quarter of the book before Simsion's presentation, then read the rest of book with his voice reading Don Tillman--the main character who unfolds in first person his story of setting out in a most logical fashion to find a wife--ringing in my head. Also brilliant.

Don Tillman's voice is unique, and not just because he speaks with an Australian accent. Simsion rooted Tillman's character in people he worked with in the computer industry during the 1970s. 

People just like my own brother.

My brother packed information into his brain, picked apart the logic of everything, and had an unusual sense of humor that I realized wasn't unusual at all after I took a job in the computer industry myself.

And once my sister and I listened to my brother talk about a woman he'd met, and our jaws dropped when he complained that she wouldn't go out with him after he'd told her the three things she'd need to change to be perfect for him. For Pete's sake, he said, it was only three things!

But also in many ways not just like my brother.

While my brother had very specific ideas about how the world should work and didn't always adapt very well when it didn't, he did not share Tillman's methodical approach to living. Also, emotion spilled every which way out of my brother.

Was Tillman somewhere on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum? Maybe. Maybe not. Simsion was deliberately vague on that, he said. But people who are on the spectrum do identify with Tillman. And people who know people who are on the spectrum have said they appreciate the opportunity to get inside Tillman's head and better understand his way of thinking.

Was my brother on the spectrum? Maybe. Maybe not. Simsion explained that he was deliberately vague about Tillman because being on the autism spectrum doesn't mean just one way of being. People are, after all, individuals.
"I consider you remarkably intelligent--"

"Don't say it."

"Say what?"

"'For a barmaid.' You were going to say that weren't you?"

Rosie had predicted correctly.

"My mother was a doctor. So is my father, if you're talking about genes. And you don't have to be a professor to be smart. I saw your face when I said I got seventy-four on the GAMSAT. You were thinking,
He won't believe this woman is that smart. But he did. So, put your prejudices away."

It was a reasonable criticism. I had little contact with people outside academia and had formed my assumptions about the rest of the world primarily from watching films and television as a child. I recognized that the characters in
Lost in Space and Star Trek were probably not representative of humans in general. Certainly, Rosie did not conform to my barmaid stereotype. It was quite likely that many of my other assumptions about people were wrong. This was no surprise.
In the end? Don Tillman learned he couldn't even rely on assumptions he'd made about himself.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book #2: Why I Write

George Orwell wrote Why I Write while "highly civilized human beings [were] flying overhead, trying to kill [him]."

England had been sucked into World War II; the U.S. had not yet entered. Orwell had already published Animal Farm, but had not yet written 1984. It was fascinating to get into his thoughts at that moment in time, especially predictions he made (hoped for, at least). He was convinced, for example, that if Great Britain emerged from the war victorious, it was destined to become a socialist nation, including state ownership of vital industries.

"Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936," he said, "has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."

Full disclosure: I know I'm meant to write about a book I finished this week, but I actually finished this book a month or so ago, during the height of the controversy surrounding the grand jury verdict about Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, and wanted to include it in this project. I couldn't help but read many of Orwell's words through the lens of that situation and others and the larger context on which they shed light.

Over and over as I read his assessment of what had led up to the point he and his compatriots found themselves in, I was impressed by how thoroughly American ideas and sensibilities are rooted in British ideas and sensibilities, and how so many of the observations he made could be written today, about either country.

One passage, for example, that particularly struck me:
Here one comes upon an all-important English trait: the respect for constitutionalism and legality, the belief in 'the law' as something above the State and above the individual, something which is cruel and stupid, of course, but at any rate incorruptible.

It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like 'They can't run me in; I haven't done anything wrong', or 'They can't do that; it's against the law', are part of the atmosphere of England. The professed enemies of society have this feeling as strongly as anyone else. . . . Everyone believes that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root.
And there we have the deeply fundamental reason why some people are rising up to protest law enforcement overreach and some people are rising up to defend law enforcement, and why some people, like me, are doing both.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Book #1: When Women Were Birds

Roger and I were in Salt Lake City for his Aunt Darlene's funeral the other day, and we stopped by The King's English bookstore on our way home. I always buy something when I stop in because I am committed to voting with my dollars there. As Roger wasn't inclined to buy anything for himself, I justified leaving with two books, including Terry Tempest Williams' When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice, a continuation of Refuge, her earlier memoir of her mother's illness and death.

In the book, Terry Tempest Williams processes the fact that her mother left her three shelves full of her journals which turned out to be completely blank (!) by exploring the idea of voice--how we find it, how we use it, why we silence it, and how silence can speak volumes.

Williams' love of creating written language does not seem to come from her mother. Her love of birds, though, and of nature more broadly, was deeply instilled in her by her family.

One of my early paradoxical memories of my own mother was that despite her utter dislike for birds, she studied her field guide and kept in a notebook a meticulous list of every bird she saw near our house at the edge of the woods. I did not inherit that drive. But I found comfort in her record keeping, and I have taken great pleasure in Williams' writing over the years as she describes the extraordinary details she observes in the natural world.

An old friend asked me yesterday why I write here, in a public way. I told him that it is a practice. I am trying to experiment with language, to find my voice, to sort through what I think, to remember. Making it public keeps me accountable, both to the discipline writing requires as well as for the ideas I express.

And I often wonder, will people change the way they see me as they read what I have written? Will they hear what I say differently if they discover I don't see the world or heaven or hell the way they do? Or the way I saw those things yesterday? Or the way I'll see them tomorrow?

I suppose I am keeping a record like my mother, but instead of birds, it is of my thoughts before they fly away.

Red Tails, Green Pants

(Teaser: The book I'm reading and will be writing about later today reminded me of this story.)

The day of my uncle's funeral at the end of November, we drove in the morning from Massachusetts to Connecticut and then later that night after dinner, we separated into two groups: Mom, Dad and my sister Linda headed back to Massachusetts and my sister Maryann and I headed to Rhode Island to visit friends.

At nearly midnight, I got a text from Linda. She'd discovered that while she was gone, a red-tailed hawk had busted through her front window and was sitting in her living room, possibly injured. Calling 911 had been no help. What should she do?

She ended up spending the night with the hawk. (Well, the hawk spent the night in the living room and she spent the night locked in her bedroom.) All was as well as it could be in the morning, and an animal rescue team came for it some time that day.

The actual hawk my sister discovered in her living room
Over brunch, Maryann and I discussed the situation with our friends. "Maybe," someone said, "It was the spirit of your uncle?"

"I don't think Uncle Chuck would come back as a hawk," I said, thinking that he would have come as something that manifests irrepressible joy, something that seeks places where the sun shines, something that would not have been afraid to wear bright green pants.

"He'd have come back as a toucan."

And then the game began. What would Uncle John come back as? He's the one who would have been a raptor. A hawk, an eagle, an owl. Sharp eyes. A man of definitive action.

"What kind of bird would Mom come back as?" I asked Maryann, forgetting for a moment that Mom doesn't like birds the way I don't like snakes. Willies. Lots of willies.

Maryann didn't miss a beat. "Mom? She'd never come back as a bird."

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Thing One and Thing Two

It wouldn't be a new year without a new writing goal. And in 2015, I'm adding two!

One: In an ongoing attempt to finish reading books I start (numbers unknown, but it would definitely take all of my fingers and toes to count them, likely even all of the fingers and toes of everyone in the family), I am pledging to finish at least one book a week and to write something about it on Sunday. My posts won't be book reviews, which I generally find soul sucking. Mostly I will write about something I learned or something the book made me think about.

Two: I'm finally starting a project I've been meaning to start for a long time: a blog about making peace with my house, which is pretty much always overwhelming for me because I'd really rather be paying attention to other things. Though I am inspired by a few aspects of homemaking, I am mostly a reluctant homemaker. In this new blog, called Home*Making*Peace, I will explore all sorts of ways to come terms with it all. And, hopefully, my house will end up reflecting my cerebral efforts.

Click here to see my first post.